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Nov 11, 2011

Breeders' Cup 2011 - What a mess!

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There have been multiple reasons why horse racing has declined as a viable sport over the last five years. The three main causes that come to mind are drug scandals, race-day medication debates, and the breakdown of high profile horses such as Barbaro and Eight Belles. However, this year has brought forward a new wrinkle that not many folks would have ever expected - the lack of sufficient talent among North American thoroughbreds.

Highlighting this point is the fact that not a single horse that ran in this continent deserves to be crowned Horse of the Year. I can honestly say that in my 30-plus years of following the Sport of Kings, including 10 in which I was privileged enough to have a vote in the Eclipse Awards, 2011 would be the first year that I would actually abstain from selecting a Horse of the Year winner on the grounds that not a single thoroughbred is worthy of such an honor.

Despite that notion, one horse will be awarded Horse of the Year so I'll try to come up with five that could win it.

Two horses that in any other year would have zero chance of holding the "belt" could actually be candidates in 2011. They are the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies winners Hansen and My Miss Aurelia. It's extremely rare for two-year-olds to even be considered for Horse of the Year since they rarely race during the first six months of the year. In fact, only Favorite Trick (1997) has won the award since Secretariat back in 1972. But this year is unlike any other we've seen in recent memory.

Hansen may not relish the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby next spring, but he beat a very deep field in the $2 million Juvenile to remain undefeated. He was also the only Breeders' Cup winner to win gate-to-wire while racing on the worst part of the track - the inside.

The gray son of Tapit, who came into the Juvenile with a pair of blowout victories at Turfway Park, held off the even-money favorite Union Rags by a diminishing head to increase his record to a perfect three-for-three. Union Rags probably was the best horse in the race having run wide throughout, but take nothing away from the winner, who will undoubtedly have his share of rabid fans heading into the three-year-old prep races.

The time for the 1 1/16-mile event was a sluggish 1:44 2/5 - almost two seconds slower than Uncle Mo's victory in this race last year. Furthermore, the times of the other dirt races on Saturday were very similar to those from 2010 so the 2011 Juvenile will not go down as one of the top two-year-old races in recent years.

My Miss Aurelia was another impressive winner as she took the Juvenile Fillies division by three-lengths over Grace Hall. It was another six back to Weemissfrankie in third. The daughter of Smart Strike was in complete control throughout the 1 1/16-mile event and she remained unbeaten with four wins in four tries.

On the down side, the last time a two-year-old filly won Horse of the Year was...never, so don't look for it to happen in 2011.

NON-BREEDERS' CUP PARTICIPANTS

In a year that not many horses proved victorious in multiple Grade I races, there are two that triumphed in three of them. However, they did not get a chance to strut their stuff at Churchill Downs this past weekend.

Cape Blanco strung together wins in the Man O' War, Arlington Million, and Turf Classic - all Grade I events between 10 and 12-furlongs. Nevertheless, he sustained a career-ending knee injury while winning the Turf Classic five weeks ago at Belmont Park. In addition, the two horses that finished second in those three races - Gio Ponti (twice) and Dean's Kitten - ran fourth in the BC Mile and last in the BC Turf, respectively.

Cape Blanco could easily be voted Turf Horse of the Year, but he won't come close to winning Horse of the Year.

The other 2011 three-time Grade I winner that did not participate in the Breeders' Cup is Acclamation. The five-year-old won five of seven races this year, including victories on both turf and synthetics.

Acclamation hit the winner's circle from May through October, but his crowning achievement came over the summer in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. The son of Unusual Heat ran the 10-furlongs in 2:00 3/5, the fastest clocking since Candy Ride (2003) stopped the timer in 1:59. It was his first ever win on any surface other than grass.

The knocks on Acclamation are that he did not win outside of California, and in his lone start on dirt, he finished dead last in the Charles Town Classic, albeit on a sloppy track.

Both Acclamation and Cape Blanco will battle for Male Turf honors, but it's doubtful either will take home Horse of the Year.

PROBABLE WINNER

Considering the average payout on Breeders' Cup Saturday was $38.37, it's easy to see why only a few BC winners will wind up being named champions of their respective divisions.

Drosselmeyer, the BC Classic winner, won just one other race in 2011- a listed stakes at Belmont Park - so he's not going to win Horse of the Year.

Game On Dude, the second-place finisher in the Classic, has an outside shot since he bagged wins in both the Santa Anita Handicap and the Goodwood Stakes. However, he was beaten by Acclamation in the Pacific Classic. Ruler On Ice, the third-place finisher in the Classic, has won just two races this season even though one of them was the Belmont Stakes.

Could a horse that ran fourth in North America's richest race win Horse of the Year? The answer is yes.

Havre de Grace, the four-year-old daughter of Saint Liam, ran seven times in 2011 from March through November losing only once against her own sex - a nose defeat against arch-rival Blind Luck. She also beat the boys in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga.

Havre de Grace won three Grade I races, but unlike Acclamation and Cape Blanco, she did it on three different racetracks. In a year that is most forgettable, look for Havre de Grace to win Horse of the Year.

PREDICTED ECLIPSE AWARD WINNERS

As mentioned earlier, Hansen and My Miss Aurelia are shoe-ins for two-year- olds of the year. The top three-year-old colt should be Caleb's Posse after he won the BC Dirt Mile. Royal Delta has the three-year-old filly award locked up and the same can be said for Havre de Grace as top older female.

Male sprinter should go to Amazombie while female sprinter could be a three- way battle between Hilda's Passion, Sassy Image, and Musical Romance. The choice here is Hilda's Passion.

Male turf will come down to East vs. West as Cape Blanco battles Acclamation. Expect the former to win since Acclamation's Pacific Classic victory has no bearing on this award.

The female turf award is wide open after Stacelita ran 10th in the F&M Turf. Look for Sarafina to snag the win after a fourth-place finish against the boys in the BC Turf.

Another division - older male - is wide open after Drosselmeyer surprised the field in the Classic. The choice here is Acclamation over Game On Dude, with honorable mention to Rapid Redux for 17 wins in 17 starts.

Let's hope 2012 can outdo the rubbish that was 2011.



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